Art in a Vacuum: The Future of Arts Journalism

posted in: Blog, Speeches | 1

The following speech was delivered at No Boundaries, the State of the Arts Conference by Arts Council England on Tuesday 25 February 2014.

Art Vacuum

In October last year I wrote a blog piece entitled ‘What is the Future of Theatre Criticism?’ it addressed my concerns over the demise of the theatre critic in the next ten years. It is a subject that has been addressed countless times and because of this I almost feel apologetic for talking about it today. I feel passionately though that we, as the arts industry, as a community and on a broader spectrum, as a society, have to acknowledge and aid the future development and change of theatre criticism and journalism. There is so much at stake and yet as arts organisations, practitioners, makers and executives, we continue to turn a blind eye.

We are all aware that the print media are facing their biggest challenge yet. How do you keep journalism flourishing, whilst simultaneously keeping readers and advertisers paying. We’re in a culture of free content, and the print media are, as they’ve done previously, attempting to navigate their evolution, focusing on developing into digital publishers. They’ve come along way, with the likes of the Guardian having a digital first strategy, but there has also been casualties with arts coverage suffering.

Column inches have shrunk. Increasingly arts coverage is turning into the Buzzfeed model of lists and YouTube videos supplementing engaging content. I’m sure Editors would argue that they are giving readers more chances of engagement but all I can see is quick and clickable content that will increase pageviews than insightful commentary. Unfortunately this is a consequence of having to hit targets, where advertisers care more about their click-through rates than being aligned with journalism that reaches a readership. Essentially journalism is being held accountable for its profitability, where every article holds a monetary value.

Whilst traditional print media and their digital progress might be dwindling in arts coverage, there has been continued success with digital first publishers in the form of blogs, magazines and websites. Breaking out of the word limits, offering engaging, intelligent and insightful coverage of the arts, these critical outlets continually to deliver. Critical reflection has widened to move beyond the ‘dead white middle class critic-view’ to giving anyone with a platform and voice the chance to be heard.

Since 2009 I have worked tirelessly on developing a platform for young people to have their views heard on the arts. A Younger Theatre was born out of my frustration for the lack of diversity within critical reflection. Where were the writers of my own age, I repeatedly asked myself? Why are they not attending press nights? Where is the younger generation and their voices? At first a blog, later a website and now an organisation, at its very core A Younger Theatre is a talented and increasingly diverse set of young voices. Since 2010 we have worked with and trained over 240 writers, we’ve developed critical writing and mentoring schemes, have had the Guardian call us “radically ageist”, and even won awards for our work.

For an organisation that receives no core-funding, I am continually surprised by the achievements of those we have engaged through our work. I am continually told by arts organisations that we are a valued and respected outlet for critical reflection. Our readers are constantly chiming our need, with one saying “On dark winter nights of feeling a bit hopeless about my slow-slow-slow-burning career, A Younger Theatre helped inspire me to carry on”. We know that through developing this critical space online we have widened the critical voice. We offer an alternative, but most importantly we offer something that until A Younger Theatre’s conception, was missing.

A Younger Theatre is the starting block for writers, a training ground that builds their skills before they move on to other publishers. Whilst I am immensely proud of the work we have achieved and I am continually in awe of these talented young people we work with, I’m not disillusioned. The model A Younger Theatre has followed replicates that of the traditional media outlets. We rely upon advertising revenue to cover our costs, and regrettably this doesn’t stretch to us paying our contributors. The same is echoed across the digitalsphere. Bloggers, magazines, websites, they’re all unfunded, with few advertisers, and increasingly producing free content by free writers. An unsustainable model, and yet we are continually hailed as the most valued of critical outlets.

We need to acknowledge the facts:
Print media is in decline.
Arts coverage in the broadsheets is shrinking.
Critics are being replaced by bullet-point digestible coverage.
Online criticism thrives but with unpaid writers.

There has to be an inherent shift in the way in which we are working. By we, I am not referring solely to the critical outlets and publishers. We, the arts community, we as the arts industry, and we as a society. If we don’t instigate change then I believe we’ll see a constant decline in arts writing.

At the Critics Circle Centenary Conference last year the critic Michael Coveney stated that the future of the critic is that of the hobbyist. He is right, the critic of the future is the person who undertakes it during their free time, unpaid, and against a day-job. The critic-hobbyist will find themselves increasingly under pressure to cover more, to see more, to write more. They’ll squeeze their writing into lunch breaks, they’ll deliver misguided words because they don’t have the time for true reflection, and ultimately they’ll do a disservice to the arts. Not because they want to this, but because they just don’t have the time nor money, to sustain the critical reflection we are currently used to.

The arts community has to acknowledge this. 
Why? 
Arts coverage, reviews sell shows. 
Critical reflection offers insightful and nuanced responses to art. 
Writing about art leaves a legacy. 
A world without critical reflection is a world where art is made within a vacuum.

As arts organisations we can not rely upon print media to report and cover our work in the future. We can not continually rely upon the likes of Lyn Gardner to be the champion of our work, because there will be no Lyn Gardner in the future. And we can not rely upon independent online criticism if the same models are followed, It just isn’t sustainable.

The playwright Simon Stephens responded to my blog piece on the decline of the critic with saying that online writers:

“…provoke me. They illuminate my own work for me. I feel pushed by them. They suggest artists to me I’d never have come across otherwise. They suggest possibilities to me about what theatre can do or be that I would not have come to independently and so stop me from writing the same play over and over again.”

I’ll say it again: A world without critical reflection is a world where art is made within a vacuum.

The responsibility of developing a sustainable business model for A Younger Theatre falls down to me. I know this, but I also know that we support the arts and arts organisations and without us there will be a void, a voice lost. I know we are valued, I know our writers offer more because they are the future, and I know that we have to safeguard this. We’re beginning to explore how A Younger Theatre can be more sustainable, doing more beyond just writing about it, which is why we’ve launched Incoming Festival, a week long festival in partnership with the New Diorama Theatre in London. We’re presenting work by emerging theatre companies and bringing our readership, a pre-built audience from just reading, to being active ticket buyers. We’re no longer just a publication, we’re a producer, a development organisation for young creatives looking at how Incoming Festival will support artists, and support our writers, how ticket sales can feed back into our work, a continuous loop, with no boundaries.

The future of arts criticism does not lie in the hand of the print media. The future of arts criticism is within the online space, supported by and working collaboratively with arts organisations. At this conference there are a team of young reporters in both Bristol and York who are reflecting and reporting on each of the speakers discussions. The arts sector collaborating with arts writers, but I’m saddened to know that as I stand here delivering this speech for a fixed fee predetermined by the conference organisers, those writers are responding and reporting for free. Their responses as arts coverage is, as the digitalsphere continually drives, free content by unpaid writers. If at A Younger Theatre we’re desperate to support our writers by paying them, we need arts organisations, for conferences, for the sector to also lead by example… but I digress.

If you as arts organisations care about your audiences, the work you make, and the critical reflection that sits between these two, then I urge you to help. Let’s get serious about safe guarding what arts criticism, bloggers, and critical outlets offer. Let’s develop a strategy that sees arts organisations supporting writers. A strategy that involves campaigning for the Arts Council England to recognise the value of the theatre writer, their artform and offering funds for support. A strategy that sees the inherent value of both the art, and the critical reflection, valued by our audiences and readers, and one that sits within the core of our society. A strategy that embeds the critic in the making. A strategy that sees arts organisations offering paid residencies for writers to critically reflect and challenge the work you produce. A strategy that develops the critic-dramaturg. A strategy that offers open dialogue and collaboration.

I’ve worked on A Younger Theatre for five years now. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and I’m not ready to give it up yet, but I need help. We, as the arts-writing community need help.

Let us not make art within a vacuum.

The Lonely Vacuum of Space image by JD Hancock and used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Patrick kelly

    Well said, Jake. You are right about the fact that the arts and criticism need each other. Reflective journalism rather than “fans with laptops” is needed to ensure that the theatre is not reduced to the lowest common denominator.